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COVID Compliance Officers: Inside the Pivotal New Production Position

Covid 19 Coronavirus Hollywood Production Placeholder
Courtesy of Tyler Perry Studios

Approximately seven weeks into the coronavirus pandemic “Good Trouble’s” Joanna Johnson made a deal with Freeform for a two-night special event series about relationships strained by social distancing. After about another two months, this series, “Love in the Time of Corona,” was filming in its actors’ homes.

Filming this way, with only a few crew members on site, waiting outside, it was one of the first productions to turn cameras on amid a larger shutdown. For the health and comfort of everyone involved, Johnson tells Variety the show had a safety coordinator on set, “which is going to be a new reality going into production.”

COVID manager. COVID compliance supervisor. COVID compliance officer. The official title currently varies depending upon whom you ask, and so too do the specific duties and ways of interacting with other personnel differ slightly, depending on the type of project. But everyone is in agreement that this is an essential new position.

“Without this position, it would be hard for performers and other workers to have confidence that the proper protocols will actually be in place on set when they arrive,” says Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, chief operating officer and general counsel, SAG-AFTRA.

To that point, Jean Smart, who was in the middle of shooting HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” when the pandemic hit, admits to being “a little nervous” about going back to work.

“My best friend’s husband does lighting, and he said some of his friends are going back to work, and there’s all sorts of very strict guidelines about face shields and masks,” she says. “You get tested Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Every pod crew gets tested the other day. The actors get tested every day. But the actors don’t get to keep their masks. They’re, in fact, the most vulnerable. So that’s a concern. It’s kind of scary. But we’ve got to keep going.”

Tyler Perry’s “Sistas” and “The Oval” resumed production amid the pandemic with a COVID compliance officer added to the call sheet, as did CBS’ summer competition staple “Big Brother” and Hallmark Channel’s “When Calls the Heart,” while sources at HBO say the network will be hiring the position widely when its productions resume, as well.

“The health and well-being of our cast, crew, and the local communities in which we film is our top priority,” says a representative for Crown Media Family Networks. “As such, we are utilizing national, state, and industry guidelines as we reopen production and have developed rigorous on- and off-set safety protocols that our cast and crew members will follow on all our productions.”

Representatives for “Big Brother” declined to comment.

There are online seminars individuals can take to receive certificates that authorize them as COVID compliance officers. What this means is that the individual has successfully been educated on the virus, including signs and symptoms, how to monitor protocol around health and safety guidelines, how to screen someone for the virus, what to do if someone who is screened tests positive, and proper social-distancing and site-disinfecting procedures. The role is not designed to replace the on-set medics, but work alongside them in a more specialized way.

“It’s that person who is making sure that we’re sanitizing, that we’re staying 6 feet apart, that we’re following rules to make sure we’re keeping everyone safe,” Johnson says of the role. She notes that when “Good Trouble” eventually starts up again they will “have an entire department for that.”

But simply knowing what to do for one moment is only one part of the pivotal new job’s responsibilities. Flexibility and a proactive nature to navigating the ever-evolving world are essential, too.

“All protocols, procedures and guidelines are subject to revisions and updates based on evolving scientific knowledge, changes to government rules or recommendations, et cetera,” says Crabtree-Ireland. “This is not business as usual, and keeping up to date is essential.”

Adds Michelle Sneed, president of production and development, Tyler Perry Studios: “You have to look for someone with general employee safety and/or even plant manufacturing experience. Someone who understands this specific type of work flow in terms of movement of numerous people, hourly time shifts and schedules, use of heavy equipment. They should also have a complete understanding of OSHA guidelines and have an extensive network of resources to keep them informed and updated.”

And, of course, be ready, willing and able to speak up about the guidelines in the high-intensity, fast-paced, big-personality world of film and television sets.

“What we really need is reminders because we all forget,” Johnson says. “We really need someone — not to be the COVID police — but to say, ‘6 feet apart’ and be someone you can go to, if you need to, to say, ‘This person doesn’t seem to be keeping their mindful distance, can you please remind them?’”

Unions such as SAG-AFTRA helped develop the concept and details of this new role, which includes giving the individuals hired in it “broad authority to pause production based on COVID related concerns,” says Crabtree-Ireland.

While Crabtree-Ireland notes that they “anticipate producers supporting the decisions of these officers, SAG-AFTRA and our sister unions will be vigilantly monitoring the situation and will respond to any concerns that COVID supervisors are not being empowered.

“We have made it clear to our members that at this time, there is no such thing as a 100% safe set. Our goal in working with our sister unions and the employers is to establish protocols that make sets as safe as possible, and to make sure that members understand those protocols and can make informed individual decisions about the level of risk that is acceptable to them,” he says.

Janet Lee contributed to this report.